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Observations on Craft: Artisanal production - the third millennium

Sunny and Meeta are a couple working towards providing rural communities with the means of a sustained livelihood. Sunny has worked with NGO's and projects involved in afforestation, drought relief, craft development and community participation in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He worked for a year in Haryana coordinating a rural centre for organic farming, informal learning, raising women awareness while editing and writing booklets and magazines which tried to evolve practical programmes stemming from ecological indigenous visions.

Before striking out with her partner Sunny, Meeta worked with Dastkar for 4 years organising crafts groups and establishing Crafts Bazaars in different cities. For the past 12 years Sunny and Meeta have been developing ranges of natural dyes and block prints on tussar, cotton, silk, jute with an artisan family in Rajasthan. Simultaneously they have been working with artisan families making artificial jewelry out of threads and with lacquer workers. They consult for craft agencies and groups and develop craft merchandising avenues.

Artisanal Production -The Third Millennium

With huge hurricanes of globalised capitalism hitting most of the worlds geographical regions its time we looked at artisanal production from the viewpoint of future relevance, mechanisation, markets, employment. To look at artisanal activity as a major social and economic force in developing countries and look at it with the widest structural vision to be able to do a comprehensive analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. To be able to emerge from classic debates of revival versus innovation , functionality versus aesthetic and cultural production, niche versus mass markets.

I have always felt the beginning should be made by studying how artisanal communities have adapted to modern industrial practices, how they have reinvented or reskilled themselves. The intervention by state, cultural elites and civil society are peripheral at best, working mostly with the beautiful and the decorative rather than the mass of artisans.

India has millions of weavers, potters, carpenters, masons, wood and stone carvers, metalworkers. Who has studied the transition of Ramgharia lohars, a sikh community who made a smooth transition in the city of Ludhiana where all the biggies of cycle industry like Atlas and Hero began, and now Hero Honda is the largest producer of motorbikes in the world. The Ramgharia lohars created copies of highly expensive western machinery and innovated small machines appropriate to our capital scarce economies. They are not engineers trained in IITs but without them most of the North Indian maintenance and machine building operations would grind to a halt.

Where has any management institution studied Artisan Entrepreneurs who have become highly successful exporters like the ones at Moradabad, Benares, Sanganer. I have heard many stories from friends in buying houses of poor artisans who now head multi million turnover casting and finishing units of stainless steel tableware to garden accessories. Why has not the "mind" of this country studied the "hand" of this country? Its Brahmanical caste system is at work here, that is why we love desk jobs like outsourced talking but not manufacturing which provides employment to the not English educated which is the huge majority.

We have to study the processes as they evolve, craft evolving into industry - screen printing being sold as block print and accepted as such as no machine is involved, it remains a hand process all the same. In hand printing the coming in of tables and printing while standing marks the evolution of processes to increase production.

The Organised labour left has done a few paltry studies on the status of artisans as unorganised workers, how their wages have changed their financial status. Our experience in Kaladera shows that a majority of artisans feel they never had it so good, work and orders were always cyclical. Ever since the grandfathers remember they had to work on farms as labor and few had the money to buy so much fabric or goods, one ghaghra used to last a year. They told us ghee was Re.1/- a kilogram but no one had that rupee, today its 150/- a kg and you can find some in every home. This experience will be varied, as lots of artisans shifted careers, leaving the ones left with better opportunities when demand picked up again.

We talk of globalisation as a new wave but pre-nineteenth century there was no nation, so many influences came from all over. Kalamkari itself is a Persian influence and block printing could be Central Asia. We have no maps of how craft has moved across regions how new skills have been learnt. In Barmer Ajrakh is smuggled into Pakistan in huge quantities, as it is cheaper and lower quality in India, there they make "Taj Mahals" as a Khatri told me, so they do not need the urban market so desperately.

The point one is making is that there have been sustained and successful artisans all over India, despite the state and despite the craft(y) intelligentsia, so we need to look at them and see how indigenous networks thrived and why and how of such instances. We have to stop getting squeamish about caste and look at Craft as Caste. Most artisans are Mandal castes, how they have maintained caste purity, work secrets, or in times of demand trained outsiders to learn their craft. In India we do not study the reality on the ground we map our westernised notions on traditional formats rather than understanding how knowledge and transmission networks have worked since centuries and build on them, complement them. Design intervention institutes need to be situated in craft pockets rather than in cities. NIFT in metros flourish while the singular National Institute of Craft set up in Jaipur has problems sustaining faculty and students.

Do we have an adequate understanding of how other countries have tackled their craft skills? In China they have actively encouraged multiple skills. An importer told me about how he met a Pakistani trader who goes pre-Id to China to get crochet caps made in millions by hand. The Chinese have developed intricate systems of having thousands of women in groups living in large geographical spreads and ways of getting designs to them and getting production in time.

Even in India I personally know of a Saurashtrian businessman who supplies embroidered hand printed suits to Shoppers Stop and has hundreds of women taking work from his mother's home, while his wife gets suits stitched in Baroda and he roams around sourcing fabrics from Rajasthan to Orissa. This takes me to the main point - The Third Milleneum Craft, how will it thrive(not just survive!).The points below are just a cursory look at mainstream markets which we tend to overlook while talking about craft in craft circles!

  1. Big Retail - how to link supermarkets to craft. Thailand has enforced design and marketing support for rural products on Multinational chains.
  2. Exports - Buying houses, what are they doing to craft, in combination with latest finishing processes
  3. Marriage Market - designer weddings, one knows of entrepreneurs and producers who design mithai boxes, from tabla look-alikes to glass and metal to paper, costing more than the mithai.
  4. Religion Market - the temples, the puja crafts, home temples
  5. Architecture-the Rajasthani jaalis, the potters, the stone sculptors
  6. How does the small boutique store fit in all this, what are their needs, is anyone thinking of wholesaling, of creating the fair trade intermediary. There is a network of thousands of family/wife/single person run stores and many waiting to open. Look at direct marketing like Amway! Dastkar Andhra tried it with handloom fabrics-"One Room Revolution" I call it. Craft development has to get into market expansion -warehousing/ quality control/ direct marketing/ craft venture development is where future of craft organisations lie.
  7. The crafts are humane forms of production, an alternative to industrial manufacture. Work is done close to home which helps maintain ecological harmony by using less natural resources wastefully. Rs. 3000/- in a village is equivalent to 5000/- in a city if not more created on a base of minimal infrastructure. But electricity and phone are today necessary for trade orders.

This essay is just to outline how large the scale of work before us is and how widespread are artisans themselves. If understood and managed well artisanal work will not only be the second largest employer outside agriculture but a dynamic and innovative one with better incomes for the practitioners. Also there is a huge space for all kinds of entrepreneurship available to young designers and marketing professionals



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